The best holiday dinners go down a little like this: the host or hostess drops off a juicy, slow-cooked brisket, a platter of latkes, and a golden homemade challah atop a linen-topped dining room table. Eyes light up. Is it the candles or all the champagne? We just don't know. Everyone sighs and murmurs a few indistinct "oh la la's".
For hosts, these moments are instant gratification after a long day of cooking. For guests, it's the perfect holiday meal.
Indeed, few things are appreciated more than a homemade loaf of bread. Maybe because it takes a day to do the kneading and fermenting. Or perhaps it's because it's so much easier to stop by the grocery store and pick up a shiny, flawlessly-braided challah.
But here's what I have to say about those store-bought challahs: screw 'em.
It's the holidays, the time to bake for friends and family. And no one in my family ever served a flawless six-braided elaborate challah on Hanukah. Challah is supposed to be homemade. It should look homemade. This loaf signifies continuity. And, to achieve that, all you need is a spiral.
What follows is our step-by-step guide to making a soft, slightly sweet challah. Tapered braids look best, especially when sprinkled with sesame seeds. But do what you would like. Poppy seeds and raisins are likewise welcome. My family sometimes adds walnuts and guava paste to the mix.
Making something truly unique -- albeit imperfect -- is the best part of baking bread at home. So, go ahead. Get crazy with your challah.
Recipe adapted from a wide-range of notes and advice from family, friends, and cookbooks (particularly by the great Peter Reinhart).
Note: When baking bread, recipes shouldn't be set in stone. Some days, you'll need more water. On other occasions, you'll need more flour. So, shape the dough by hand and get a sense of how it feels. Let that be your guide.
4 cups all purpose flour, preferably King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose Flour
3 - 4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 teaspoon instant yeast
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 organic eggs, slightly beaten
2 organic egg yolks, slightly beaten
3/4 -1 cup water, at room temperature
2 organic egg yolks
3 large bowls
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and instant yeast. Stir. In a separate large bowl, whisk the canola oil, 3/4 cup water, eggs and yolks. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients. Combine with a wooden spoon until the mixture resembles a shaggy mass. Add more water if necessary.
2. Sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Turn over the dough and knead for at least ten minutes. Set a timer. Ten minutes of kneading is a lot longer than you might think.
After ten minutes, the dough should be smooth, shiny and elastic. If it's not, then you're not trying hard enough.
3. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place for about one hour.
4. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead for about two minutes. Return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for another hour. (If you have time, the challah would taste best if you allow the dough to rise for a couple of hours in the fridge and then continue with the rest of the steps.)
5. Turn the dough onto a flat surface. Cut and shape into three (almost!) same-sized balls. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rest for ten minutes.
6. Roll the three balls into thin logs. Starting from the middle, braid the three pieces together. Using your fingers, press the ends together and push under the braid. Place the dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Froth the egg whites and brush onto the dough. Allow to rise for another hour.
6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush another layer of egg whites on the dough. Place in the oven for about twenty minutes. Rotate the baking sheet 180 degrees and then bake for 20 more minutes, or until the challah is golden brown. Do not overbake!
7. Allow to cool for one hour before slicing.
And, remember: save some slices for the next day. Challah French toast is absolutely delicious.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.